Robert Falconer by George MacDonald
Part III.--His Manhood
Chapter VII. The Silk-Weaver.
When he arrived he made it his first business to find 'Widow Walker.' She was evidently one of the worst of her class; and could it have been accomplished without scandal, and without interfering with the quietness upon which he believed that the true effect of his labours in a large measure depended, he would not have scrupled simply to carry off the child. With much difficulty, for the woman was suspicious, he contrived to see her, and was at once reminded of the child he had seen in the cart on the occasion of Shargar's recognition of his mother. He fancied he saw in her some resemblance to his friend Shargar. The affair ended in his paying the woman a hundred and fifty pounds to give up the girl. Within six months she had drunk herself to death. He took little Nancy Kennedy home with him, and gave her in charge to his housekeeper. She cried a good deal at first, and wanted to go back to Mother Walker, but he had no great trouble with her after a time. She began to take a share in the house-work, and at length to wait upon him. Then Falconer began to see that he must cultivate relations with other people in order to enlarge his means of helping the poor. He nowise abandoned his conviction that whatever good he sought to do or lent himself to aid must be effected entirely by individual influence. He had little faith in societies, regarding them chiefly as a wretched substitute, just better than nothing, for that help which the neighbour is to give to his neighbour. Finding how the unbelief of the best of the poor is occasioned by hopelessness in privation, and the sufferings of those dear to them, he was confident that only the personal communion of friendship could make it possible for them to believe in God. Christians must be in the world as He was in the world; and in proportion as the truth radiated from them, the world would be able to believe in Him. Money he saw to be worse than useless, except as a gracious outcome of human feelings and brotherly love. He always insisted that the Saviour healed only those on whom his humanity had laid hold; that he demanded faith of them in order to make them regard him, that so his personal being might enter into their hearts. Healing without faith in its source would have done them harm instead of good--would have been to them a windfall, not a Godsend; at best the gift of magic, even sometimes the power of Satan casting out Satan. But he must not therefore act as if he were the only one who could render this individual aid, or as if men influencing the poor individually could not aid each other in their individual labours. He soon found, I say, that there were things he could not do without help, and Nancy was his first perplexity. From this he was delivered in a wonderful way.
One afternoon he was prowling about Spitalfields, where he had made many acquaintances amongst the silk-weavers and their families. Hearing a loud voice as he passed down a stair from the visit he had been paying further up the house, he went into the room whence the sound came, for he knew a little of the occupant. He was one De Fleuri, or as the neighbours called him, Diffleery, in whose countenance, after generations of want and debasement, the delicate lines and noble cast of his ancient race were yet emergent. This man had lost his wife and three children, his whole family except a daughter now sick, by a slow-consuming hunger; and he did not believe there was a God that ruled in the earth. But he supported his unbelief by no other argument than a hopeless bitter glance at his empty loom. At this moment he sat silent--a rock against which the noisy waves of a combative Bible-reader were breaking in rude foam. His silence and apparent impassiveness angered the irreverent little worthy. To Falconer's humour he looked a vulgar bull-terrier barking at a noble, sad-faced staghound. His foolish arguments against infidelity, drawn from Paley's Natural Theology, and tracts about the inspiration of the Bible, touched the sore-hearted unbelief of the man no nearer than the clangour of negro kettles affects the eclipse of the sun. Falconer stood watching his opportunity. Nor was the eager disputant long in affording him one. Socratic fashion, Falconer asked him a question, and was answered; followed it with another, which, after a little hesitation, was likewise answered; then asked a third, the ready answer to which involved such a flagrant contradiction of the first, that the poor sorrowful weaver burst into a laugh of delight at the discomfiture of his tormentor. After some stammering, and a confused attempt to recover the line of argument, the would-be partizan of Deity roared out, 'The fool hath said in his heart there is no God;' and with this triumphant discharge of his swivel, turned and ran down the stairs precipitately.
Both laughed while the sound of his footsteps lasted. Then Falconer said,
'My. De Fleuri, I believe in God with all my heart, and soul, and strength, and mind; though not in that poor creature's arguments. I don't know that your unbelief is not better than his faith.'
'I am greatly obliged to you, Mr. Falconer. I haven't laughed so for years. What right has he to come pestering me?'
'None whatever. But you must forgive him, because he is well-meaning, and because his conceit has made a fool of him. They're not all like him. But how is your daughter?'
'Very poorly, sir. She's going after the rest. A Spitalfields weaver ought to be like the cats: they don't mind how many of their kittens are drowned.'
'I beg your pardon. They don't like it. Only they forget it sooner than we do.'
'Why do you say we, sir? You don't know anything of that sort.'
'The heart knows its own bitterness, De Fleuri--and finds it enough, I dare say.'
The weaver was silent for a moment. When he spoke again, there was a touch of tenderness in his respect.
'Will you go and see my poor Katey, sir?'
'Would she like to see me?'
'It does her good to see you. I never let that fellow go near her. He may worry me as he pleases; but she shall die in peace. That is all I can do for her.'
'Do you still persist in refusing help--for your daughter--I don't mean for yourself?'
Not believing in God, De Fleuri would not be obliged to his fellow. Falconer had never met with a similar instance.
'I do. I won't kill her, and I won't kill myself: I am not bound to accept charity. It's all right. I only want to leave the whole affair behind; and I sincerely hope there's nothing to come after. If I were God, I should be ashamed of such a mess of a world.'
'Well, no doubt you would have made something more to your mind--and better, too, if all you see were all there is to be seen. But I didn't send that bore away to bore you myself. I'm going to see Katey.'
'Very well, sir. I won't go up with you, for I won't interfere with what you think proper to say to her.'
'That's rather like faith somewhere!' thought Falconer. 'Could that man fail to believe in Jesus Christ if he only saw him--anything like as he is?'
Katey lay in a room overhead; for though he lacked food, this man contrived to pay for a separate room for his daughter, whom he treated with far more respect than many gentlemen treat their wives. Falconer found her lying on a wretched bed. Still it was a bed; and many in the same house had no bed to lie on. He had just come from a room overhead where lived a widow with four children. All of them lay on a floor whence issued at night, by many holes, awful rats. The children could not sleep for horror. They did not mind the little ones, they said, but when the big ones came, they were awake all night.
'Well, Katey, how are you?'
'No better, thank God.'
She spoke as her father had taught her. Her face was worn and thin, but hardly death-like. Only extremes met in it--the hopelessness had turned through quietude into comfort. Her hopelessness affected him more than her father's. But there was nothing he could do for her.
There came a tap at the door.
'Come in,' said Falconer, involuntarily.
A lady in the dress of a Sister of Mercy entered with a large basket on her arm. She started, and hesitated for a moment when she saw him. He rose, thinking it better to go. She advanced to the bedside. He turned at the door, and said,
'I won't say good-bye yet, Katey, for I'm going to have a chat with your father, and if you will let me, I will look in again.'
As he turned he saw the lady kiss her on the forehead. At the sound of his voice she started again, left the bedside and came towards him. Whether he knew her by her face or her voice first, he could not tell.
'Robert,' she said, holding out her hand.
It was Mary St. John. Their hands met, joined fast, and lingered, as they gazed each in the other's face. It was nearly fourteen years since they had parted. The freshness of youth was gone from her cheek, and the signs of middle age were present on her forehead. But she was statelier, nobler, and gentler than ever. Falconer looked at her calmly, with only a still swelling at the heart, as if they met on the threshold of heaven. All the selfishness of passion was gone, and the old earlier adoration, elevated and glorified, had returned. He was a boy once more in the presence of a woman-angel. She did not shrink from his gaze, she did not withdraw her hand from his clasp.
'I am so glad, Robert!' was all she said.
'So am I,' he answered quietly. 'We may meet sometimes then?'
'Yes. Perhaps we can help each other.'
'You can help me,' said Falconer. 'I have a girl I don't know what to do with.'
'Send her to me. I will take care of her.'
'I will bring her. But I must come and see you first.'
'That will tell you where I live,' she said, giving him a card. Good-bye.'
'Till to-morrow,' said Falconer.
'She's not like that Bible fellow,' said De Fleuri, as he entered his room again. 'She don't walk into your house as if it was her own.'
He was leaning against his idle loom, which, like a dead thing, filled the place with the mournfulness of death. Falconer took a broken chair, the only one, and sat down.
'I am going to take a liberty with you, Mr. De Fleuri,' he said.
'As you please, Mr. Falconer.'
'I want to tell you the only fault I have to you.'
'You don't do anything for the people in the house. Whether you believe in God or not, you ought to do what you can for your neighbour.'
He held that to help a neighbour is the strongest antidote to unbelief, and an open door out of the bad air of one's own troubles, as well.
De Fleuri laughed bitterly, and rubbed his hand up and down his empty pocket. It was a pitiable action. Falconer understood it.
'There are better things than money: sympathy, for instance. You could talk to them a little.'
'I have no sympathy, sir.'
'You would find you had, if you would let it out.'
'I should only make them more miserable. If I believed as you do, now, there might be some use.'
'There's that widow with her four children in the garret. The poor little things are tormented by the rats: couldn't you nail bits of wood over their holes?'
De Fleuri laughed again.
'Where am I to get the bits of wood, except I pull down some of those laths. And they wouldn't keep them out a night.'
'Couldn't you ask some carpenter?'
'I won't ask a favour.'
'I shouldn't mind asking, now.'
'That's because you don't know the bitterness of needing.'
'Fortunately, however, there's no occasion for it. You have no right to refuse for another what you wouldn't accept for yourself. Of course I could send in a man to do it; but if you would do it, that would do her heart good. And that's what most wants doing good to--isn't it, now?'
'I believe you're right there, sir. If it wasn't for the misery of it, I shouldn't mind the hunger.'
'I should like to tell you how I came to go poking my nose into other people's affairs. Would you like to hear my story now?'
'If you please, sir.'
A little pallid curiosity seemed to rouse itself in the heart of the hopeless man. So Falconer began at once to tell him how he had been brought up, describing the country and their ways of life, not excluding his adventures with Shargar, until he saw that the man was thoroughly interested. Then all at once, pulling out his watch, he said,
'But it's time I had my tea, and I haven't half done yet. I am not fond of being hungry, like you, Mr. De Fleuri.'
The poor fellow could only manage a very dubious smile.
'I'll tell you what,' said Falconer, as if the thought had only just struck him--'come home with me, and I'll give you the rest of it at my own place.'
'You must excuse me, sir.'
'Bless my soul, the man's as proud as Lucifer! He wont accept a neighbour's invitation to a cup of tea--for fear it should put him under obligations, I suppose.'
'It's very kind of you, sir, to put it in that way; but I don't choose to be taken in. You know very well it's not as one equal asks another you ask me. It's charity.'
'Do I not behave to you as an equal?'
'But you know that don't make us equals.'
'But isn't there something better than being equals? Supposing, as you will have it, that we're not equals, can't we be friends?'
'I hope so, sir.'
'Do you think now, Mr. De Fleuri, if you weren't something more to me than a mere equal, I would go telling you my own history? But I forgot: I have told you hardly anything yet. I have to tell you how much nearer I am to your level than you think. I had the design too of getting you to help me in the main object of my life. Come, don't be a fool. I want you.'
'I can't leave Katey,' said the weaver, hesitatingly.
'Miss St. John is there still. I will ask her to stop till you come back.'
Without waiting for an answer, he ran up the stairs, and had speedily arranged with Miss St. John. Then taking his consent for granted, he hurried De Fleuri away with him, and knowing how unfit a man of his trade was for walking, irrespective of feebleness from want, he called the first cab, and took him home. Here, over their tea, which he judged the safest meal for a stomach unaccustomed to food, he told him about his grandmother, and about Dr. Anderson, and how he came to give himself to the work he was at, partly for its own sake, partly in the hope of finding his father. He told him his only clue to finding him; and that he had called on Mrs. Macallister twice every week for two years, but had heard nothing of him. De Fleuri listened with what rose to great interest before the story was finished. And one of its ends at least was gained: the weaver was at home with him. The poor fellow felt that such close relation to an outcast, did indeed bring Falconer nearer to his own level.
'Do you want it kept a secret, sir?' he asked.
'I don't want it made a matter of gossip. But I do not mind how many respectable people like yourself know of it.'
He said this with a vague hope of assistance.
Before they parted, the unaccustomed tears had visited the eyes of De Fleuri, and he had consented not only to repair Mrs. Chisholm's garret-floor, but to take in hand the expenditure of a certain sum weekly, as he should judge expedient, for the people who lived in that and the neighbouring houses--in no case, however, except of sickness, or actual want of bread from want of work. Thus did Falconer appoint a sorrow-made infidel to be the almoner of his christian charity, knowing well that the nature of the Son of Man was in him, and that to get him to do as the Son of Man did, in ever so small a degree, was the readiest means of bringing his higher nature to the birth. Nor did he ever repent the choice he had made.
When he waited upon Miss St. John the next day, he found her in the ordinary dress of a lady. She received him with perfect confidence and kindness, but there was no reference made to the past. She told him that she had belonged to a sisterhood, but had left it a few days before, believing she could do better without its restrictions.
'It was an act of cowardice,' she said,--'wearing the dress yesterday. I had got used to it, and did not feel safe without it; but I shall not wear it any more.'
'I think you are right,' said Falconer. 'The nearer any friendly act is associated with the individual heart, without intervention of class or creed, the more the humanity, which is the divinity of it, will appear.'
He then told her about Nancy.
'I will keep her about myself for a while,' said Miss St. John, 'till I see what can be done with her. I know a good many people who without being prepared, or perhaps able to take any trouble, are yet ready to do a kindness when it is put in their way.'
'I feel more and more that I ought to make some friends,' said Falconer; 'for I find my means of help reach but a little way. What had I better do? I suppose I could get some introductions.--I hardly know how.'
'That will easily be managed. I will take that in hand. If you will accept invitations, you will soon know a good many people--of all sorts,' she added with a smile.
About this time Falconer, having often felt the pressure of his ignorance of legal affairs, and reflected whether it would not add to his efficiency to rescue himself from it, began such a course of study as would fit him for the profession of the law. Gifted with splendid health, and if with a slow strength of grasping, yet with a great power of holding, he set himself to work, and regularly read for the bar.